'I've high hopes for my Paisley and McGuinness film... some will love it and others will just hate it'
As Colin Bateman this week launches his brilliant new novel Papercuts, he tells Una Brankin how it was inspired by his early days in journalism and why he's thrilled with his new movie about our most famous First Ministers.
As a painfully shy cub reporter, Colin Bateman used to have a horror of cold-calling people for comments, particularly widows of whoever he had to semi-eulogise that week in the Bangor Spectator. Having to make the call in an open-plan office, in front of more experienced hacks, made the experience even more tortuous for the timid teen.
This was a budding author who just wanted to write; not to ask personal questions. But he knows the game - and it's a quandary for him when I start asking him questions he doesn't want to answer, in an interview ahead of the launch of his latest book, Papercuts.
Having admitted to being "happily divorced" from his long-term spouse Andrea, the Bangor-based writer comes over all evasive when asked if he now lives alone.
"Oh that's dangerous territory. Er, it's complicated," he prevaricates, with a hint of a nervous laugh. "I have a very complicated life; I can't really go into it."
Confirming he has no plans to remarry, he acknowledges that the 'Issac' mentioned in the dedication of Papercuts, is his two-year-old son.
So, is the famously prolific writer getting much sleep these nights? "Um, I can't really say… yes, it's stressful but it's brilliant. I'm sorry, I know this makes it awkward for you."
Colin's dedication of Papercuts - his 34th book - includes his older son Matthew (20), who went missing, for six days from Simon Community accommodation in Belfast in 2013, but returned home safely after his father made a public appeal. When Matthew was younger he showed an entrepreneurial streak by buying 25p chocolate bars from Asda and selling them on at school for a profit. At the time, Colin thought he'd go on to make a good businessman.
"That's not going to happen but he's all right. He's doing fine," is all the writer will say on the subject now.
He's more willing to talk about Papercuts, of course, and his screenplay for The Journey, an upcoming film starring Timothy Spall and Colm Meaney, about the relationship that developed between Ian Paisley and Martin McGuiness.
Liam Neeson and Kenneth Branagh were approached initially for the roles.
"I met them together in New York to discuss it, but we ran into some Hollywood politics, and they're very busy people," Colin recalls. "We had the money and were ready to go but they weren't available, so we went for Timothy Spall and Colm Meaney, and they've done a brilliant job.
"They don't do impressions of Paisley and McGuinness; they have created the characters. No-one really knows what someone is like behind closed doors. But they work really well.
"I have high hopes for the film. Watching it in Northern Ireland, we know so much of the history, there are some who will love it and some who will hate it."
The Journey was filmed in six to seven months, a very short time in movie making. It's directed by Belfast-born Nick Hamm (no relation to gorgeous John), who has been living in LA for many years, where he has worked on projects including The Godsend (2004) with Robert de Niro, the U2 film Killing Bono and the TV drama series Rogue, starring Thandie Newton.
Hamm first approached Colin 17 years ago, having read the blurb for one of his previous novels, Empire State. When he'd finished the book, however, the director decided it was too "politically incorrect" to film.
"It was kind of fate, the way things happened with Nick Hamm - it was the right time and the right place, this time," says Colin. "The agent who contacted me about the screenplay forgot to delete the emails below the one she sent me, saying she'd love to have me on board, so I got to see every other single writer she had approached before me, who had all turned it down.
"Anyway, we went to see Martin McGuiness and he was trying to explain everything in very simple terms to Nick, until he turned round and said he'd gone to Campbell College. Ian Paisley had died by that stage, but we went to see Junior. They were all very nice about it, but they haven't seen the script and they don't know what's coming.
"It is a serious drama, with some laughs in it. It doesn't pull any punches - it's not a Hallmark card version of the events."
It's plaintive to think that George and Madge Batman didn't live to see their son's success in the world of fiction. Well known for his crime novels, including Murphy's Law, and the 1998 film of his first book, Divorcing Jack, Bateman was previously named one of the top 50 crime writers of all time by the Daily Telegraph. And he has his father to thank for helping him to get his first writing job.
From Newtownards originally, George was a Second World War veteran and civil servant. Madge, a housewife who stayed at home to look after Colin and his older brother, David. Both parents died young, within six years of each other, when Colin was in his 20s.
"It was from illnesses, cancer. My brother David had already left home, so it was just me and the Jack Russell. My parents didn't see any of the book success, but they did get to see my byline in the Bangor Spectator.
"It was dad who got me in - he knew I loved writing and he phoned up the editor, Anne Roycroft, then said to me 'You go in and she'll tell you what it's like to be a journalist'.
"I didn't know it was an interview. Anne Roycroft told me to write 300 words on why I wanted to be a journalist and I just made up what I thought she'd like to hear and other community stuff I wasn't interested in at all, and she offered me a job. That was before my A-Levels; I was 17."
Instead of staying on at school, the young Colin went to his local technical college to learn shorthand and typing. His first pay packet was around £30 a week.
"Suddenly, I had all this freedom. I was into punk and I got into gigs for free. And Anne Roycroft seemed to be a very straight-laced single lady in her 50s, a Sunday School teacher, what would have been described as a typical spinster then, and she gave this young punk a chance.
"I wasn't very impressive to speak to and this was a real opportunity for me. Being a bit of an uppity teenager, the first thing I ever wrote was on the Sex Pistols' first album, Never Mind The B*******. It had been banned everywhere when it came out, but six months later it was being proclaimed as a hit, and I was commenting on how hypocritical it all was, and here was this very prim Sunday school teacher reading it.
"I had put asterisks in 'B*******' but she said, 'If it's called B*******, then that's what we'll use'. That taught me never to presume, and it freed me up in my writing and to use swearing in print.
"I did a column, surreal stuff I wouldn't have had the nerve to do before that."
His shyness as a young man extended to approaching girls. "Strongbow cider helped," he quips. "Am I over it? I'm not sure you ever are. I'm still quite a quiet person, but I can get up in front of a crowd of 300 and talk away, no problem at all. The writing success has given me confidence, but I still don't like to have to speak to people on the street or at the drive-through at McDonalds.
"It's not about being recognised - I don't think any writer becomes that famous and recognisable, unless you're JK Rowling or somebody. But, you know, I was at Tesco one day and somebody at the check-out said 'I loved your column in the Spectator'. Local newspapers can have that sort of impact."
So you mustn't have aged much since your picture by-line, then. "Yes, I'm still as gorgeous as ever I was ..."
I wondered if he got his unique brand of wit from his mother or father.
"God knows where it came from. I always liked Woody Allen and Monty Python; I never aspired to be the next great Irish writer. I wasn't interested in that tradition. I'm from Proddy north Down, more into footballers and so on, but I was always into movies and crime fiction.
"When I say Protestant, by the way, it's with a small 'p'. We weren't particularly religious, but we did celebrate Christmas and the Twelfth. The bonfire was a big event. We were only 12 miles outside Belfast, but it might as well have been 300. Wearing a UVF badge seemed innocent then - we didn't know the reality of it.
"I didn't meet any Catholics until I went to secondary school - and I went to a Protestant school - but some of my best friends are Catholic, he hastens to add."
Having settled into his dream first job, Colin became part of the boozy crowd at the Spectator - "the week's work finished on a Thursday lunch-time - then it was off to the pub, and the Friday was spent lying across your desk recovering".
These days he prefers a can of Diet Pepsi and a bag of Revels to partying, and spends much of his spare time watching movies. He has seen the first two series of Breaking Bad and the war drama Band of Brothers, which appeals to his fascination with the Second World War.
In another encounter in a local shop recently, he discovered his father had played a much bigger role in the conflict in France than he had known.
"Dad was a boy soldier, 18-years-old. As far as we knew, he'd landed in France the day after the D-Day landings, but I was in the shop one day and this guy recognised me as George Bateman's son. He said dad was a hero of his, and told me he'd gone in on the second wave on D-Day. None of us knew that - dad didn't talk about the war.
"He got shot in the knee during it and he was part of a firing squad that shot a Polish soldier who'd been accused of raping someone. One of the line-up wouldn't have a bullet in his rifle, so no-one would know for sure who had killed the guy.
"My uncle Jack Bateman (an actor in 1946 British war film Theirs Is The Glory, directed by Ulsterman Brian Desmond Hurst, who was himself a veteran of the First World War) and my uncle David, who died last week just two months short of 100, also fought in the Second World War ... they're all gone now."
Although he denies Papercuts is autobiographical, he agrees that his new protagonist and his anti-hero in Divorcing Jack reflect facets of his personality and life, past and present.
Based in the fictional Bangor Express, Papercuts is made up of eight short stories focused on Guardian journalist Rob Cullen, who flies home for the funeral of his former editor. He ends up staying behind to do a day's consulting work at the struggling paper and finds himself reporting on everything from armed robberies to arson attacks.
"It's a new topic, but it's still about the dysfunctional relationships between the characters. I got typecast a little bit, after 34 books. I always want to try something different. It's not autobiographical, but it's imbued with knowledge. You write about what you know, but exaggerate hugely, with bodies everywhere, if it's crime fiction. Papercuts is an easy to read book, and quite funny."
Having just read it, I can confirm that's true.
Papercuts, which is published by Head of Zeus, £14.99, is being launched at Space Theatre in Bangor this Wednesday at 7pm, in association with the Open House Festival. Available at all good bookshops and to download from Amazon and other online distributors
Colin on his favourite things ...
- Personal character trait? Introverted, with a huge ego, a lethal combination
- Physical attribute? One of my ears is bigger than the other; I'm sure this means something
- Personality type? I like funny
- Film (recent): Not a great year for movies, but Mad Max and The Revenant
- Book? Cars and Trucks and Things That Go by Richard Scarry. It's endless fun for a two-year-old
- TV/online drama? Game of Thrones, House of Cards
- Food? I aspire to healthy eating, but it's hard to beat steak and chips
- Drink? Pepsi Max. It's a health drink, really
- Motto/saying? A bird in the hand is unhygienic